The coefficient of friction is the quotient obtained by dividing the value of the force necessary to move one body over another at a constant speed by the weight of the body. For example, if a force of 20 newtons is needed to move a body weighing 100 newtons over another horizontal body at a constant speed, the coefficient of friction between these two materials is 20/100 or 0.2. Different materials in contact yield different results; e.g., different resistances are felt if one pushes a block of wood over surfaces of wood, steel, and plastic. A different coefficient of friction must be calculated for each different pair of materials.
There is more than one coefficient of friction for a given pair of materials. More force is needed to start a body moving across a surface than is needed to keep it in motion once started. Thus the coefficient of static friction (describing the former case) for a pair of substances is greater than the coefficient of kinetic friction (describing the latter case) for the substances. Similarly, sliding friction is greater than rolling friction. The force of friction between two materials can be calculated by multiplying the coefficient of friction between these materials (determined experimentally and listed in engineering handbooks) by the force holding them together (e.g., the weight of the moving body).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.